Robert Rescorla: Biography & Psychology

Instructor: Nathan Kilgore

Nathan has taught college Psychology, Sociology, English, and Communications and has a master's degree in education.

This article summarizes the contributions Robert Rescorla has made to psychology. Specific detail is given to his groundbreaking discoveries in the field of Pavlovian conditioning, out of which arose the contingency theory.

Pavlovian Conditioning

You might be familiar with Ivan Pavlov, the Russian physiologist who discovered the learning process we now call classical conditioning. But have you heard of Robert Rescorla, the experimental psychologist who expanded on this theory? Before we get to Rescorla's contributions, let's first go over what led Pavlov to his discovery.

It all began in Pavlov's lab, when he found his dog would salivate every time the dinner bell was run, before he was fed. You would probably expect a dog to salivate at the sight of food. Salivating is a natural response to food, even for humans. However, you probably wouldn't expect a dog (or humans) to salivate at the ringing of a bell. Yet Pavlov discovered that if a bell was rung every time a dog was given food, eventually the dog would salivate to the sound of the bell, even if food was not offered.

According to Pavlov, the key to whether or not the dog would salivate at the sound of the bell was how many times the dog's food (defined as the conditioned stimulus, or CS) was paired with the bell (the unconditioned stimulus, or US). Therefore, if the number of times the bell is 'paired' with the food increases, the dog will have a stronger association, and more likely to salivate.

Upon further research, Pavlov concluded that human behavior -- much like his dog's -- is also at times a learned response. Let's look at an example of how. One day while taking a nice warm shower, you hear a toilet flush in the background. The next thing you know, you're being blasted with hot water. You realize in that moment that the flushing toilet caused the rush of hot water. The next day you are, again, taking a warm shower. You hear a toilet flush in the background, and you quickly move out of the water's flow, anticipating the rush of hot water. Not this time, you say to yourself. Pavlov might suggest that your learned behavior is because of association. (Pavlov's theory of classical conditioning is sometimes also referred to as associative learning).

Robert Rescorla and Contingency Theory

So what does this have to do with Robert Rescorla? In the 1960s, Robert A. Rescorla came to the scene and added a little twist to classical conditioning, one he called contingency theory. Rescorla was interested specifically in the frequency or the number of times an association was made. That is, although Rescorla agreed with Pavlov that a dog can learn to anticipate food at the sound of a bell, Rescorla suggested that the dog could also be taught the likelihood that the food would follow the sound of the bell. Rescorla would further define the relationship between the food (also called the unconditioned stimulus, or US) and the bell (also called the conditioned stimulus, or CS) as dependent or contingent.

Let's look at the following pattern:

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